Clean up on French beaches as oil slick reaches shore

Pampelonne beach is known for its turquoise sea and is a popular tourist destination in summer

Over one hundred people in the Var (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur) have joined together to clean up 16 km of beaches after the largest oil slick to hit since 1991 caused severe coastal pollution this week.

Oil has been washing up on the shores of the Pampelonne coast in the past few days, and the problem could last for as long as 15 days, locals have warned.

The source is believed to be the result of a collision between two boats in the Corsican sea area 10 days ago. The area, which affects 17 beaches across seven communes, is usually a popular tourist destination, and part of the famous gulf of Saint Tropez.

Now, over one hundred people have been tasked with clearing up the mess, in an operation dubbed “the Polmar-Terre plan”, on the order of Var chief commissioner Jean-Luc Videlaine.

They include volunteers, local environmental agencies and firefighters, all of whom are armed with garden pitchforks and rakes.

Gendarmerie have also visited the area, wearing masks and boots, to take samples of the oil, pending an investigation into the pollution and who may be held responsible for the oil leak.

Locals are warned not to touch any oil, and instead report it to the local Mairie, the gendarmerie by calling 17, or the fire brigade by calling 18 or 112.

Aldo Lavendan, a member of the local council and part of the cleaning team, said: “We pick up the big bits with the fork, and use the rake for the smaller bits. It is impossible to know how much there could be, so we have to make a big effort. Everything is ruined. There is going to be a lot of work.”

Eric Lefebvre, deputy departmental director for land and sea, and leader of the area’s anti-pollution measures, said: “Our work is about cleaning, while protecting the ecosystem. We have to pick up the oil and everything that is covered - including seaweed - but not take too much, and risk upsetting the beach’s natural [environmental] equilibrium."

The extent of the ecological damage is not yet known for certain.

Marc-Etienne Lansade, mayor of local commune Cogolin, commented that the region had been particularly unlucky in recent months.

He said: “We had monstrous fires last year, flooding a few days ago, and now oil. It is starting to feel like a lot.”

Cyril Bernardoni, who has managed a business on the Pampelonne beach for 20 years, said: “We are disgusted. The beach will never been as clean again. We are working here, picking up crabs and sea urchins...It’s all dead. And we do not know when it will stop.”

But despite the damage, authorities - including the minister for ecological transition - have estimated that just 2% of the oil from the collision will wash up on beaches in the south, although some believe that there could be further problems on the Atlantic coast and even by the English Channel.

Mr Videlaine said he was “not trying to minimise the trauma”, but that the situation was not as bad as some had feared. Yet, he admitted that “in terms of significance, we have not seen such a phenomenon since 1991”.

He said: “Of course there are economic factors, but if this had happened on July 14, it would have been much worse. The idea that the global reputation of Saint Tropez will be ruined by this event...I do not believe it.”

But Mr Giraud, Mr Lansade, and mayor of affected commune Ramatuelle, Roland Bruno, have joined together to make a formal complaint and drive forward an investigation into the disaster.

Marc Giraud, president of the local council, said: “The only good thing in all of this is that it has happened in mid-October [and not summer]. But I am angry. Was everything possible done, not here in the Var, but in Corsica [to prevent this]? That is what we are asking.”

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